Icons from the 12th Century to the Renaissance

From 19 of October until 4 February, one room in the Courtauld Gallery will be transformed into a space for holy icons. The panels to be seen will be nine major works from the monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai in Egypt. These have been in the monastery since the Middle Ages but will be seen first in the Hermitage Museum at St Petersburg and then at the Courtauld. In addition some major icons from the Hermitage collection (several deriving from monasteries on the Holy Mountain of Athos) will be shown in the gallery as well. The exhibition has been made possible by the support of the St Catherine's Foundation.

The icons from Sinai are works of major significance for the history of art, but they will be unknown even to most art historians. They show the character of icon painting in the 12th and 13th centuries, probably by artists working in the monastery during the period of the Crusades. Two icons, for example, are by a major Byzantine artist, Stephanos, who signed panels of Prophet Elijah and of Moses Giving the Law. His inscription, written in both Greek and Arabic, recorded that he was both artist and donor. Both icons are large and represent subjects special to Sinai. Another icon in the exhibition represents Sts Sergios and Bacchos on horseback (actually on the back of a double sided icon which has the Virgin on its main face) and this has been intensively studied in recent literature. It has been attributed to a Crusader artist from South Italy, or to a Crusader artist from Cyprus, or to a Syrian milieu either in Cyprus or on the mainland. The exhibition will also include one of the earliest beams known from a Byzantine templon (or iconostasis). This is the 12th century beam with the miracles of St Eustratios, which was probably painted in the monastery to adorn the chapel of the Holy Five of Armenia.

The icons from Russia are of equal importance for showing how the sanctuary in the 12th century Byzantine church was transformed with the help of art into a holy space. The Hermitage is also lending works of great quality which will stimulate comparisons with early Renaissance works in the gallery. This exhibition will give an opportunity to reassess the nature of Byzantine art with the help of recently discovered works.

We shall have a conference which focuses on the exhibition on 25 November (the festival day of St Catherine of Alexandria).

Robin Cormack
Deputy Director